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Ford at CES 2011

Sun, 09 Jan 2011 00:00:00 -0800

Ford has been the automotive darling of the Consumer Electronics Show for several years now. On Friday morning, Ford CEO Alan Mulally made a historic third keynote speech, during which he introduced the new Focus Electric and a host of new supporting technologies, which appear to keep Ford near the top of the technological pack.

Two aspects of Ford's approach are interesting. While the Focus electric doesn't have a pure EV architecture like the Nissan Leaf, Ford has differentiated the exterior form, primarily in the shape of a new grille. (There are numerous other minor tweaks to improve aero, but you'd never notice). The change in DRG however, seems likely to get noticed, and it's interesting to note Ford following Hyundai's strategy here, the Korean firm reworking the sheet metal ahead of the A-pillars to differentiate its Sonata hybrid from the regular car.

It's the latest marker point in the debate around the design differentiation of electrified cars, which began with the Toyota Prius. Surveys suggest that a majority of the public perceive the design of cars that are in someway electrified - particularly the Toyota Prius - to be less aesthetically pleasing than an equivalent-sized gasoline-powered car. Yet these same surveys also suggest that the way the Prius looks is the key reason for its success - with over 60% of Prius buyers to 2008 saying they'd bought the car to ‘make a statement' and because it is distinct.

To our eyes, the grille treatment at the front of the Focus Electric is actually more coherent than the tri-aperture arrangement of the regular car, which features cheap-looking blanked off triangular elements either side of the main grille. Its overall form is reminiscent of that used on recent Aston Martins, and nods to the Start concept from the Beijing auto show, which was so well received earlier this year. Clearly, Ford believe some exterior differentiation is necessary for this electric model, but it's pleasing to see that the car hasn't suffered, aesthetically, in the name of efficiency.

The other important aspect of the Focus electric is its gauge cluster and HMI. A development of the MyFord Touch interface launched last year, the system has been tailored around the electric powertrain and combines with an associated off-board technology, in the form of a new Ford's mobile phone App, dubbed MyFord Mobile (see what they've done there...?)

This means that, at a basic feature level, the Focus Electric has the same appeal and functionality as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. However, Ford's team has worked particularly hard to build a gauge cluster that minimizes range anxiety - the dreaded bugbear of electric cars in the eyes of the consumer today.

The set up inside the car features a central speedometer, flanked by two four-inch TFTs and an eight-inch centre screen, just like the MyFord Touch installation in Ford of North America's other vehicles. However, in the Focus electric, the left-hand TFT screen sees the rev-counter of the normal car replaced by a ‘budget' view. This display - in connection with the navigation system - helps drivers to understand whether they've enough range in hand to get to their next charging point, and how much energy they're recovering under braking. The right hand screen can show entertainment, phone and navigation displays as per the regular cars, but adds a function called ‘surplus', which brings up a screen full of butterflies. As long as there are butterflies on the screen, the driver knows they can reach their next charging point on the energy left in the battery. The centre touchscreen can augment these displays, show regular car functions such as a navigation map, but is also used to set charging times and help coach the driver on how to improve range.

Elements of the system are a little twee (the butterflies are meant to represent the ‘butterfly effect' that Ford hopes the Focus electric will create, with those who experience the car being spurred on to buy an electric car themselves). But it's obvious a significant level of research, design and development has gone into tailoring this system so that consumer concerns around electric cars can be overcome. The design of this display system assures drivers, but also doesn't resort to nagging them to drive efficiently, and at times, we suspect, will actually make the car more fun.

That's before the added functionality provided by the phone App is taken into account. Like the Chevrolet Volt/OnStar system we reported on recently, it gives users complete control of charging, and information status about the car, from wherever they are in the world.

There's much more to show in this system, so we'll be featuring a full design review in a few weeks, and be talking in more depth with the design team behind it at NAIAS 2011 in Detroit next week. 

By Joe Simpson